"The Works of Fiona Macleod" Volume IV

Iona

To illustrate the history of the island I select the following episode from Barbaric Tales.  It deals with The Flight of the Culdees. The name culdee (Note) is somewhat loosely used both by medićval and modern writers, for it does not appear to have been given to the Brotherhood of the Columban Church till two hundred years after Columba's death. The word may be taken to mean the Cleric of God; perhaps, later, it was the equivalent of anchorite. This episode is, in date, about A.D. 800 or soon after.

On the wane of the moon, on the day following the ruin of Bail'-tiorail, sails were seen far east of Stromness.

Olaus the White called his men together. The boats coming before the wind were doubtless his own galleys which he had lost when the south-gale had blown them against Skye; but no man can know when and how the gods may smile grimly, and let the swords that whirl be broken, or the spears that are flat become a hedge of death.

An hour later, a startled word went from viking to viking. The galleys in the offing were the fleet of Sweno the Hammerer. Why had he come so far southward, and why were oars so swift and the stained sails distended before the wind? They were soon to know.

Sweno himself was the first to land. A great man he was, broad and burly, with a sword-slash across his face that brought his brows in a perpetual frown above his savage blood-shot eyes.

In few words he told how, he had met a galley, with only half its crew, and of these many who were wounded. It was the last of the fleet of Haco the Laugher. A fleet of fifteen war-birlinns had set out from the Long Island, and had given battle. Haco had gone into the strife, laughing loud as was his wont, and he and all his men had the berserk rage, and fought with joy and foam at the mouth. Never had the Sword sung a sweeter song.

"Well," said Olaus the White grimly, "well, how did the Raven fly?"

"When Haco laughed for the last time, his sword waving out of the death-tide where he sank, there was only one galley left. No more than nine vikings lived thereafter to tell the tale. These nine we took out of their boat, which was below waves soon. Haco and his men are all fighting the sea-shadows by now."

A loud snarling went from man to man. This became a cry of rage. Then savage shouts filled the air. Swords were lifted up against the sky; and the fierce glitter of blue eyes and the bristling of tawny beards were fair to see, thought the captive women, though their hearts beat in their breasts like eaglets behind the bars of a cage.

Sweno the Hammerer frowned a deep frown when he heard that Olaus was there with only the Svart-Alf out of the galleys which had gone the southward way.

"If the islanders come upon us now with their birlinns we shall have to make a running fight," he said.

Olaus laughed.

"Ay, but the running shall be after the birlinns, Sweno."

"I hear there are fifty and nine men of these Culdees yonder under the sword-priest, Maoliosa?"

"It is a true word. But to-night, after the moon is up, there shall be none."

At that, all who heard laughed, and were less heavy in their hearts because of the slaying and drowning of Haco the Laugher and all his crew.

"Where is the woman Brenda that you took?" Olaus asked, as he stared at Sweno's boat and saw no woman there.

"She is in the sea."

Olaus the White looked. It was his eyes that asked.

"I flung her into the sea because she laughed when she heard of how the birlinns that were under Somhairle the Renegade drove in upon our ships, and how Haco laughed no more, and the sea was red with viking blood."

"She was a woman, Sweno--and none more fair in the isles, after Morna that is mine."

"Woman or no woman, I flung her into the sea. The Gael call us Gall: then I will let no Gael laugh at the Gall. It is enough. She is drowned. There are always women: one here, one there--it is but a wave blown this way or that."

At this moment a viking came running across the ruined town with tidings. Maoliosa and his culdees were crowding into a great birlinn. Perhaps they were coming to give battle: perhaps they were for sailing away from that place.

Olaus and Sweno stared across the fjord.

At first they knew not what to do. If Maoliosa thought of battle he would hardly choose that hour and place. Or was it that he knew the Gael were coming in force, and that the vikings were caught in a trap?

At last it was clear. Sweno gave a great laugh.

"By the blood of Odin," he cried, "they come to sue for peace!"

Filled with white-robed culdees, the birlinn drew slowly across the loch. A tall, old man stood at the prow, with streaming hair and beard, white as sea-foam. In his right hand he grasped a great Cross, whereon Christ was crucified.

The vikings drew close to one another.

"Hail them in their own tongue, Sweno," said Olaus.

The Hammerer moved to the water-edge, as the birlinn stopped, a short arrow-flight away.

"Ho, there, priests of the Christ-faith!"

"What would you, viking?" It was Maoliosa himself that spoke.

"Why do you come here among us, you that are Maoliosa?"

"To win you and yours to God, Pagan."

"Is it madness that is upon you, old man? We have swords and spears here, if we lack hymns and prayers."

All this time Olaus kept a wary watch inland and seaward, for he feared that Maoliosa came because of an ambush.

Truly the old monk was mad. He had told his culdees that God would prevail, and that the pagans would melt away before the Cross. The ebb-tide was running swift. Even while Sweno spoke, the birlinn touched a low seahidden ledge of rock. A cry of consternation went up from the white-robes. Loud laughter came from the vikings.

"Arrows!" cried Olaus.

With that threescore men took their bows. A hail of death-shafts fell. Many pierced the water, but some pierced the necks and hearts of the culdees.

Maoliosa himself, stood in death transfixed to the mast. With a scream the monks swept their oars backward. Then they leaped to their feet, and changed their place, and rowed for life.

The summer-sailors sprang into their galley. Sweno the Hammerer was at the bow. The foam curled and hissed. The birlinn of the culdees grided upon the opposite shore at the moment when Sweno brought down his battle-axe upon the monk who steered. The man was cleft to the shoulder. Sweno swayed with the blow, stumbled, and fell headlong into the sea. A culdee thrust at him with an oar, and pinned him among the sea-tangle. Thus died Sweno the Hammerer.

Like a flock of sheep the wbite-robes leaped upon the shore. Yet Olaus was quicker than they. With a score of vikings he raced to the Church of the Cells, and gained the sanctuary. The monks uttered a cry of despair, and, turning, fled across the sands. Olaus counted them. There were now forty in all.

"Let forty men follow," he cried.

The monks fled this way and that. Olaus, and those who watched, laughed to see how they stumbled, because of their robes. One by one fell, sword-cleft or spear-thrust. The sand-dunes were red.

Soon there were fewer than a score--then twelve only--ten!

"Bring them back!" Olaus shouted.

When the ten fugitives were captured and brought back, Olaus took the crucifix that Maoliosa had raised, and held it before each in turn.

"Smite!" he said to the first monk. But the man would not.

"Smite!" he said to the second; but he would not. And so it was to the tenth.

"Good!" said Olaus the White; they shall witness to their God."

With that he bade his vikings break up them birlinn, and drive the planks into the ground and shore them up with logs. When this was done he crucified each culdee. With nails and with ropes he did unto each what their God had suffered. Then all were left there by the water-side.

That night, when Olaus the White and the laughing Morna left the great bonfire where the vikings sang and drank horn after horn of strong ale, they stood and looked across the strait. In the moonlight, upon the dim verge of the island shore, they could see ten crosses. On each was a motionless white splatch.

Once more, for an instance of the grafting of Christian thought and imagery on pagan thought and imagery, I take a few pages of the introductory part to the story of "The Woman with the Net," in a later volume. (The Dominion of Dreams, 1st Ed.) They tell of a young monk who, inspired by Colum's holy example, went out of Iona as a missionary to the Pictish heathen of the north.

When Artân had kissed the brow of every white-robed brother on Iona, and had been thrice kissed by the aged Colum, his heart was filled with gladness.

It was late summer, and in the afternoonlight peace lay on the green waters of the Sound, on the green grass of the dunes, on the domed wicker-woven cells of the culdees over whom the holy Colum ruled, and on the little rock-strewn hill which rose above where stood Colum's wattled church of sunbaked mud. The abbot walked slowly by the side of the young man. Colum was tall, with hair long and heavy but white as the canna, and with a beard that hung low on his breast, grey as the moss on old firs. His blue eyes were tender. The youth--for though he was a grown man he seemed a youth beside Colum--had beauty. He was tall and comely, with yellow curling hair, and dark-blue eyes, and a skin so white that it troubled some of the monks who dreamed old dreams and washed them away in tears and scourgings.

"You have the bitter fever of youth upon you,  Artân," said Colum, as they crossed the dunes beyond Dűn I; "but you have no fear, and you will be a flame among these Pictish idolaters, and you will be a lamp to show them the way."

"And when I come again, there will be clappings of hands, and hymns, and many rejoicings?"

"I do not think you will come again," said Colum. "The wild people of these northlands will burn you, or crucify you, or put you upon the crahslat, or give you thirst and hunger till you die. It will be a great joy for you to die like that, Artân, my son?"

"Ay, a great joy," answered the young monk, but with his eyes dreaming away from his words.

Silence was between them as they neared the cove where a large coracle lay, with three men in it.

"Will God be coming to Iona when I am away?" asked  Artân.

Colum stared at him.

"Is it likely that God would come here in a coracle? " he asked, with scornful eyes.

The young man looked abashed. For sure, God would not come in a coracle, just as he himself might come. He knew by that how Colum had reproved him. He would come in a cloud of fire, and would be seen from far and near.  Artân wondered if the place he was going to was too far north for him to see that greatness; but he feared to ask.

"Give me a new name," he asked; "give me a new name, my father."

"What name will you have?"

"Servant of Mary."

"So be it, Artân Gille-Mhoire."

With that Colum kissed him and bade farewell, and Artân sat down in the coracle, and covered his head with his mantle, and wept and prayed.

The last word he heard was, Peace!

'That is a good word, and a good thing," he said to himself; and because I am the Servant of Mary, and the Brother of Jesu the Son, I will take peace to the Cruitnč, who know nothing of that blessing of the blessings."

When he unfolded his mantle, he saw that the coracle was already far from Iona. The south wind blew, and the tides swept northward, and the boat moved swiftly across the water. The sea was ashine with froth and small waves leaping like lambs.

In the boat were Thorkeld, a helot of Iona, and two dark wild-eyed men of the north. They were Picts, but could speak the tongue of the Gael. Myrdu, the Pictish king of Skye, had sent them to Iona, to bring back from Colum a culdee who could show wonders.

"And tell the chief Druid of the Godmen," Myrdu had said, "that if his culdee does not show me good wonders, and so make me believe in his two gods and the woman, I will put an ash-shaft through his body from the hips and out at his mouth, and send him back on the north tide to the Isle of the WhiteRobes." The sun was already among the outer isles when the coracle passed near the Isle of Columns. A great noise was in the air: the noise of the waves in the caverns, and the noise of the tide, like sea-wolves growling, and like bulls bellowing in a narrow pass of the hills.

A sudden current caught the boat, and it began to drift towards great reefs white with ceaseless torn streams.

Thorkeld leaned from the helm, and shouted to the two Picts. They did not stir, but sat staring, idle with fear.

Artân knew now that it was as Colum had said. God would give him glory soon.

So he took the little clarsach he had for hymns, for he was the best harper on Iona, and struck the strings, and sang. But the Latin words tangled in his throat, and he knew too that the men in the boat would not understand what he sang; also that the older gods still came far south, and in the caves of the Isle of Columns were demons. There was only one tongue common to all; and since God has wisdom beyond that of Colum himself, He would know the song in Gaelic as well as though sung in Latin.

So Artân let the wind take his broken hymn, and he made a song of his own, and sang:

Heavenly Mary, Queen of the Elements,
And you, Brigit the fair with the little harp,
And all the saints, and all the old gods
(And it is not one of them I'd be disowning),
Speak to the Father, that he may save us fron drowning.

Then seeing that the boat drifted closer he sang again:

Save us from the rocks and the sea, Queen o Heaven!
And remember that I am a Culdee of Iona,
And that Colum has sent me to the Cruitnč
To sing them the song of peace lest they be damned for ever!

Thorkeld laughed at that.

"Can the woman put swimming upon you?" he said roughly. "I would rather have the good fin of a great fish now than any woman in the skies."

"You will burn in hell for that," said Artân, the holy zeal warm at his heart.

But Thorkeld answered nothing. His hand was on the helm, his eyes ore the foaming rocks. Besides, what had he to do with the culdee's hell or heaven? When he died, he, who was a man of Lochlann, would go to his own place.

One of the dark men stood, holding the mast. His eyes shone. Thick words swung from his lips like seaweed thrown out of a hollow by an ebbing wave.

The coracle swerved, and the four men were wet with the heavy spray.

Thorkeld put his oar in the water, and the swaying craft righted,

"Glory to God," said Artân.

"There is no glory to your god in this," said Thorkeld scornfully. "Did you not hear what Necta sang? He sang to the woman in there that drags men into the caves, and throws their bones on the next tide. He put an incantation upon her, and she shrank, and the boat slid away from the rocks."

"That is a true thing," thought Artân. He wondered if it was because he had not sung his hymn in the holy Latin.

When the last flame died out of the west, and the stars came like sheep gathering at the call of the shepherd Artân remembered that he had not said his prayers and sang the vesper hymn.

He lay back and listened. There were no bells calling across the water. He looked into the depths. It was Manann's kingdom, and he had never heard that God was there; but he looked. Then he stared into the dark-blue star-strewn sky.

Suddenly he touched Thorkeld.

"Tell me," he said, "how far north has the Cross of Christ come?"

"By the sea way it has not come here yet. Murdoch the Freckled came with it this way, but he was pulled into the sea, and he died."

"Who pulled him into the sea?"

Thorkeld stared into the running wave. He had no words.

Artân lay still for a long while.

"It will go ill with me," he thought, (if Mary cannot see me so far away from Iona, and if God will not listen to me. Colum should have known that, and given me a holy leaf with the fair branching letters on it, and the Latin words that are the words of God."

Then he spoke to the man who had sung.

"Do you know of Mary and God, and the Son, and the Spirit?"

You have too many Gods, Culdee," answered the Pict sullenly: "for of these one is your god's son, and the other is the woman his mother, and the third is the ghost of an ancestor."

Artân frowned.

"The curse of the God of Peace upon you for that," he said angrily; "do you know that you have hell for your dwelling-place if you speak evil of God the Father, and the Son, and the Mother of God ?

"How long have they been in Iona, White-Robe?"

The man spoke scornfully. Artân knew they had not been there many years. He had no words.

" My father worshipped the Sun on the Holy Isle before ever your great Druid that is called Colum crossed the Moyle. Were your three gods in the coracle with Colum? They were not on the Holy Isle when he came."

"They were coming there," answeredArtân confusedly. "It is a long, long way from--from--from the place they were sailing from."

Necta listened sullenly.

"Let them stay on Iona," he said: "gods though they be, it would fare ill with them if they came upon the Woman with the Net." Then he turned on his side, and lay by the man Darach, who was staring at the moon and muttering words that neither Artân nor Thorkeld knew.

A white calm fell. The boat lay like a leaf on a silent pool. There was nothing between that dim wilderness and the vast sweeping blackness filled with quivering stars, but the coracle, that a wave could crush.

 

At times, I doubt not, there must have been weaker brethren among these simple and devoted Culdees of Iona, though in Colum's own day there was probably none (unless it were Oran) who was not the visible outward shrine of a pure flame.

Thinking of such an one, and not without furtive pagan sympathy, I wrote the other day these lines, which I may also add here as a further side-light upon that half-Pagan, half Christian basis upon which the Columban Church of Iona stood.

Balva the old monk I am called: when I was young, Balva Honeymouth.
That was before Colum the White came to Iona in the West.
She whom I loved was a woman whom I won out of the South.
And I had a good heaven with my lips on hers and with breast to breast.

Balva the old monk I am called: were it not for the fear
That the soul of Colum the White would meet my soul in the Narrows
That sever the living and dead, I would rise up from here,
And go back to where men pray with spears and arrows.

Balva the old monk I am called: ugh! ugh! the cold bell of the matins--'tis dawn!
Sure it's a dream I have had that I was in a warm wood with the sun ashine,
And that against me in the pleasant greenness was a soft fawn,
And a voice that whispered "Balva Honeymouth, drink, I am thy wine!"

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